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Video: JM Coetzee Discusses Fiction, Memoir and the Self at the Worlds Literature Festival

The Childhood of JesusThe Writers’ Centre Norwich has this month released a video of JM Coetzee delivering the opening provocation at last year’s Worlds Literature Festival. Coetzee discussed the writing of memoirs, commenting on both the generality and uniqueness of life stories. He uses the example of a Bangladeshi rice farmer and a Moldovan sex worker to explain that, “It is not with the farmer as farmer or the sex worker as sex worker that we identify, it is with the underlying man or woman, the being with whom we share humanity”.

Coetzee also asks, “If we are going to be authors of our own life stories, are we free to be the authors of their truths as well?” He illustrates this point by telling a short tale about 33 year old divorced Nancy who hates her job and resents the fact that her parents did not let her go to art school. Nancy goes to a therapist who helps her to reconstruct a narrative about her childhood – one in which her mother is portrayed as jealous and not wanting her daughter to succeed. Coetzee then reads an imagined dialogue he has with the therapist, asking: “Wouldn’t it be prudent to ask Nancy’s mother whether it was true that she was envious of her daughter’s looks and talents and prevented her from going to art school?” The therapist’s reply is: “That is not the way that therapy works.”

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